A few years ago, my wife and I were attending the local gurduara in New York. It had started to drizzle in the meantime and when the service ended, we stepped out into a messy puddle and rain. As we ran for our car that was parked nearby, we noticed a middle-aged Sikh woman who had also stepped out of the gurduara into the rain and was standing in the shelter waiting for the local bus.
Here we thought was a God-given opportunity for some seva — aiding the needy. We offered to drive her home if she could give us the directions. She hopped in with a broad smile and a beaming thank you. Naturally, the conversation turned to small talk about where in India each of us was from. I told her my name but she remained unsatisfied with it. Turned out that she was looking for a last name indicating caste or village identity. In her opinion, ending my name with Singh was to leave it incomplete.As you can see I use no family or caste identity to my name; no one in my family ever has, nor have I.
It is how we interpret Sikh teaching on caste identity. Obviously, many Sikhs don’t and I certainly don’t mean to be judgmental here. But she was adamant and I was resistant. She was not pleased to be associating with Sikhs who are unaware of their family’s place in the Indian caste system. and was uneasy to be in the car with such people. She continued her tirade. I concede that my response was tactless. I offered to drive her home or to stop right there in the middle of the road in rain and let her out, if that would please her; I added a caution that the rain was now worse. She looked out the window now that the drizzle was a storm, pursed her lips, refused to talk to us for the rest of the way – and hurriedly rushed out when we reached her destination.
I have encountered many a Bedi, Bawa or Bhalla who happily traced his ancestral connection to one or the other Guru, but often this was clearly their one major connection to Sikhi. Years earlier I had met a Sodhi – we were talking about the possibility of marriage between his sister and I. He insisted that people in Punjab bowed their heads and offered money to members of the Sodhi clan, that such practices are noble and needed to be encouraged. I had to remind him that in Sikh history some Sodhis are admired for their loyalty to Sikhi while others had turned traitors.
I see that many, if not most, people of the old cultures take satisfaction – indeed pride – with the success of their ancestors. When I wondered that that if his forefathers built this or that, surely this is a matter of pleased satisfaction but what had he or his generation done to be proud of.
We often claim pride in being a Sikh, Christian, Jew, ad infinitum. My take is a bit different.
Pride comes from satisfactory results of your own efforts. How can I take pride in the fact that some people created or built something unique or unusual and useful? The pride of achievement belongs to the builder, inventor or creator – not someone that I never met even though his DNA is now a part of mine.How reasonable is it to live on and brag about the achievements of others, however noble, strong or smart?
To us humans this is the only life we know. And we will never know if this is the first, the last or numbered (X?) somewhere in between in an endless line. So, we have to do the best we can with this one chance and trust that any that preceded our current turn in life must have been acceptable to a heavenly judge (if there be one), and after the present life one that follows this spin of the coin will turn out at least similarly, if not better.
I am reminded of Abraham Lincoln who reputedly said:I don’t know who my grandfather was; I am much more concerned to know who his grandson will be.
I rest my case on two lines of gurbani– one exhorts us not to proudly flaunt our racial or caste identity and antecedents (Jaat ka garabh na karyoh koi …Guru Granth p. 1127). A second line challenges us to think of what footprints will we leave in the sands of time (Eh sareera merya iss jug meh aaye ke kyaa tudh karam kamayya, Guru Granth p. 922).
[I.J. Singh is a New York based writer and speaker on Sikhism in the Diaspora, and a Professor of Anatomy. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org]
* This is the opinion of the writer, organisation or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Asia Samachar.
The narcissism of small differences (Asia Samachar, 11 Feb 2019)